Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Playoff format change for 2018 Seattle area 40 & over league - 31% fewer teams will advance than last year

January tends to be a slower tennis month for USTA play as some areas aren't playing at all, and those that are tend to begin play full force mid or late in the month.  Thus, I've been a bit delinquent in writing about thoughts or observations.

But as we exit January, things are ramping up and folks are getting reports (yes! I'm still doing them and ready for 2018), whether individual, team, recruiting, or flight.  As teams play, those vying for the lead in their flight start thinking about playoffs and what it will take to qualify.

In this area, there is a change for 2018 in my area, specifically the 40 & over league going on now has changed what teams and how many qualify for playoffs.

From the playoff draws already posted, we can see that for each gender and level, what used to be 6 to 8 or even 10 team draws is now generally just 4.  The change is that for the most part, it is just flight winners that advance to local playoffs instead of what used to be the 1st and 2nd place teams in each flight with just one 2nd place wildcard total across all the flights.  Here are the full scenarios.

Women


  • 3.0 - Five teams advance, four flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been eight teams in the past
  • 3.5 - Six teams advance, five flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been ten teams in the past
  • 4.0 - Four teams advance, three flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been six teams in the past
  • 4.5+ - Four teams advance, the top-2 teams from each flight, just as was done in the past

Men

  • 3.0 - Four teams advance, three flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been six teams in the past
  • 3.5 - Five teams advance, four flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been eight teams in the past
  • 4.0 - Four teams advance, three flight winners and one 2nd place wildcard, this would have been six teams in the past
  • 4.5+ - Four teams advance, the top-2 teams from each flight, just as was done in the past

All told, this is 19 women's teams and 17 men's teams advancing, compared to 28 and 24, so a reduction of 31%.  That is a lot of players that won't get to experience playoffs this year that did last year.

I do not know the motivation for this change, but can speculate and consider the effects of this change.

First, it is going to reduce the number of matches that need to be hosted for local playoff weekend.  Where in the past they had to start on a Friday, sometimes even Thursday evening and some teams may have to play four matches in three or four days, the schedule now has only two matches on Friday and the rest on Saturday and Sunday, the longest path to winning being three matches and that only for a few teams.

This certainly eases the burden on the required courts and scheduling, and will also be cheaper for the USTA in that regard.  Will we see the team fee for playoffs go down as a result?  And it will make it less taxing for players likely reducing by one the number of matches to be played in a short period of time.  But some players may have relished the playing opportunity and as noted above, 31% fewer teams will get to experience playoffs.

Second, this puts more pressure on teams to do well in regular season play and puts a priority on winning every match if possible.  No longer can you have an early season loss or two and still have a shot at playoffs.  If you don't win that early season match against the top team, you are really in a hole and may need the top team to lose twice to have a shot.

This could mean captains will be less willing to play their full roster, instead wanting to run their best players out every match to avoid a slip-up that could cost a chance at playoffs.  If so, this is unfortunate as the other players may get to play less than before.

Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Encouraging teams to go all out could lead to stronger competition, and the top team that is undefeated with two matches to play may not be able to mail in the last two knowing they'd still qualify in second place.

Third, it is almost certain that a really good team is not going to make playoffs, perhaps at each gender and level.  If a team is missing some good players for a given match and comes away with an unexpected loss, they could go 8-1 or 9-1 and lose out to an undefeated team.

Yes, there is the provision for one 2nd place team to be a wildcard, but for that to be equitable it assumes flights are relatively balanced and the best 2nd place team will earn that wildcard.  The truth is that it is nearly impossible to have balanced flights and there will be a tough one with perhaps three playoff quality teams, and another flight with at most one, but the tough flight may beat up on each other and only one team advance while the 2nd place team with the best record may be weaker but benefit from being in a weak flight.

I'll try to do some analysis on strength of flights to see if there are any glaring inequities and what the result could be.

What do you think?

Does making the regular season more meaningful make for a better league?  If you can't win your flight you aren't going to do well at Sectionals and beyond so no harm done?  Is letting 2nd place teams go to playoffs like giving out participation medals?

Or is only taking 1st place teams (for the most part) not fair and make it so there is pressure on a captain to only play their good players?  Or does it unfairly advantage those teams that can stack their roster with ringers?  Or is the USTA just trying to save a buck on fewer matches/courts that have to be paid for?